Influential director Melvin Van Peebles died on Tuesday night reception in Manhattan. The 89-year-old director was best known for his independent films Watermelon Man (1970) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). He was also the daddy of Mario Van Peebles, with whom he wrote and directed the movie Panther in 1995. The elder Van Peebles told NPR that year he considered that film a lesson for teenagers too young to recollect the Panthers’ community activism. “But quite a lesson, because history can tell tons of stories,” he said. “This lesson also encourages the children to move .”
Melvin Van Peebles inspired a generation of young filmmakers to move. His early movies were shot on tiny budgets — and shot through with provocative, politically charged humor. He played the most role in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song but gave himself barely any lines. He was twiddling with stereotypes, he told NPR in 2008 and standing them on their heads. And he defended his decision to cast his then-young son during a role that required a sex scene with an adult woman. “Business is business,” he told NPR’s, Michel Martin. “What the heck? Didn’t seem to harm or hurt him a touch .”
Van Peebles was born in Chicago in 1932. He helped pave the way for the renegade genre referred to as blaxploitation, with movies that were bitingly funny, sexually swaggering, and infrequently violent, that put Black protagonists front and center. His heroes were hustlers and revolutionaries; Sweetback was considered so outrageous, it had been originally rated X. it had been also an enormous financial success.
The director was multi-talented; he was also a playwright, painter, and composer who seriously studied astronomy and options trading as alternative careers. His death came shortly before the 50th anniversary of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and a celebration planned by the NY festival. The Criterion Collection planned a box set to be released next week called “Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films.” the corporate announced the filmmakers’ death on social media. The Criterion Collection’s statement read partially, “In an unparalleled career distinguished by relentless innovation, boundless curiosity and spiritual empathy, Melvin Van Peebles made an indelible mark on the international cultural landscape through his films, novels, plays, and music.”